I made the mistake of finishing A Dance with Dragons this morning before church. The way George R. R. Martin ended this book left me in mild shock, which wasn’t helpful when interacting with people. I’m starting to wonder if support groups need to exist for people who finish Martin’s novels.
With the completion of this book, I am now caught up. With previous books, I was comforted by knowing I could pick up the next one at any time. Not so with book five of this series. Like everyone else who has been reading these novels, I must wait. I finally understand the anxiety of fans who fear Martin may die before he finishes the series. These books are brilliant, and I question if anyone can effectively weave the layers of plot, scandal, and characters the way Martin does. He is a master craftsman. I don’t begrudge him the time it takes to write these books. If the amount of time between books is what it takes to produce works of this quality, then I want him to have the time he needs. I just want the patron gods of literature to keep him alive and in good health long enough for him to finish.
One dynamic that impressed me in A Dance with Dragons was the concept of shifting identity. This concept was in A Feast for Crows to some extent, but I noticed it more fully in ADwD because of how many people had identity crises, experimentation: Reek, Arya, and Ser Barristan. Each of these characters had point-of-view chapters, as is the format of the series, but each of their POV chapters had a different name. Arya’s chapters were “The Blind Girl” and “The Ugly Little Girl,” Barristan’s chapters were “The Discarded Knight,” “The Kingbreaker,” and “The Queen’s Hand.” And I’ll avoid Reek’s chapters since I have at least one friend who hasn’t read this book and who may read this post. Suffice it to say, he also has multiple POV chapters with different names.
These three characters struggle with identity. They try to figure out who they are and what they are supposed to be, whether a knight who is trying to make the right decisions in uncertain circumstances, a young girl wanting revenge but who needs to abandon her identity so she can learn the skills necessary to enable that revenge (and letting go of the person who wanted revenge), and a man tortured and told to be someone he isn’t, but struggling to please his master while playing a role to enable his master to gain power. Martin signals with these three characters that identity is uncertain, but that it can be a cloak (or a skin-mask) that can be put on and taken off. In fact, rejection of a previous identity may be useful for progressing in a more positive, effective way.
In some ways, the Song of Ice and Fire series is an exploration of how children live in and shape the world their fathers created. The parents are systematically dying, leaving their children to determine who they are in this world. Should they embrace their family heritage and live up to what their fathers expected of them? Do they reject that heritage, becoming something else not connected to the heritage? Or do they take the positive parts of that heritage and emphasize those things, shaping a new legacy from the broken, old one. Much of the time, these characters are only responsible for the choices they make in the moment, whether they play the game of thrones or not. This isn’t a world that rewards compassion, honor, or duty, but neither does it reward deception, selfishness, and manipulation. All men (and women) die. What do those who are left behind choose to do?
I have no idea how Martin will end this series. I’m not sure what the endgame is. I have many theories, but they have never felt as uncertain as they do right now. Martin has proven that even if he overturns all my ideas, his ideas will fit with what he has created, and they will fit with everything he has written up to this point. I admire this author and I eagerly await The Winds of Winter.